Tuesday February 18, 2014Long, Rewarding Road Back: Wilbekin's Personal Growth Fuels No. 2 Gators
Gators point guard Scottie Wilbekin has emerged as one of the best players in the SEC this season.
Gators point guard Scottie Wilbekin has emerged as one of the best players in the SEC this season.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- To appreciate the place where Scottie Wilbekin is right now, consider the deep, dark hole he was in last June.
Wilbekin had been suspended from the Florida basketball team for violating team rules, his second such infraction in seven months. The first time sideswiped the program, his family and his church, and upon his reinstatement a contrite Wilbekin apologized for embarrassing the people he cared most about and promised it wouldn’t happen again.
And then it did.
In a meeting with Gators coach Billy Donovan and Wilbekin’s parents, all fuming, Wilbekin was told he had two choices. He could transfer. That was the easy option, Donovan told him, because his second was not going to be pleasant. He could agree to enter a personal purgatory of sunrise conditioning, extra study halls and tutor sessions and zero involvement with basketball activities for the next four-plus months, at which point Donovan would make a decision regarding Wilbekin’s reinstatement.
It was that clear cut.
“I was absolutely livid with him,” said Svend Wilbekin, Scottie’s father, who coached him throughout youth, AAU and two seasons at The Rock, a Christian school in Gainesville. “The day that Scottie signed with the University of Florida was the greatest day we ever experienced as a family. And now, this day ... it was the worst.”
Wilbekin, the player, did not know what to do. His parents told him they would not help him shop for another school. He was their son and they loved him, but this was a problem of Scottie’s making and now he had to solve it.
Ultimately, Scottie went to his father and asked, “If you were me, what would you do?”
Dad’s answer: “I told him that leaving would take everything Billy had done for him -- the opportunity to play at Florida, shaping and molding him into the player he had become -- and just throw it back in his coach’s face by allowing another program to reap the rewards. To me, that would be wrong. But I also told him it was his decision.”
Scottie went off by himself, but didn’t need much time to return with his mind made up.
“I’m staying,” he said.
The Wilbekins were glad. Not because their oldest son was staying home or that he wasn’t quitting on the hometown team. He was confronting the problem rather than running from it.
Now everybody involved with the UF program is delighted he did. The same can’t be said for the rest of the Southeastern Conference, which is finding out with each game that confronting Wilbekin and the second-ranked Gators is a huge problem.
When Florida (23-2, 12-0) goes for a school-record 18th straight victory Wednesday night against Auburn (12-11, 4-8) at the O’Connell Center, the Gators will do it with one of college basketball’s best redemption stories in the spotlight.
“It wasn’t fun, but I’ll be the first one to say it was worth it,” Wilbekin said of the difficult path he had to take to regain Donovan’s trust and return to the team in good standing. “I’m a better person for it and I think everybody else here would say the same thing.”
Last week, the 6-foot-2, 176-pound dynamo set back-to-back career-highs in scoring, totaling 44 points, making 21 of 24 free throws, carding eight assists, five steals and zero turnovers in wins at Tennessee and 14th-ranked Kentucky. For his remarkable back-to-back efforts, Wilbekin garnered SEC Player of the Week honors. In the big conference picture, though, that’s small potatoes.
Right now, Wilbekin is the favorite for SEC Player of the Year.
“He’s playing at an unbelievably high level,” said senior forward Casey Prather, who ought to know given the jump in productivity he’s made in growing into UF’s leading scorer this season. “Not only is Scottie scoring, but he’s taking control of our team, getting us in and out of our offense and guarding the other team’s best perimeter player. It just speaks to his competitive nature. I’m glad he’s on my team.”
To think how close it came to going the other way.
“When I first heard the news, I was upset, hurt, saddened -- just a mix of emotions,” senior center Patric Young said of his roommate’s second suspension. “I was a little scared for our team because I didn’t know what to expect or what was going to happen.”
Once Wilbekin decided to take Donovan’s route back, every UF player saw what their teammate-in-limbo had to deal with on a daily basis. Not only did Donovan make him move back in with his parents, he had to report to strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene summer mornings at 7 a.m., then spend the rest of the day meeting academic requirements. Wilbekin was not allowed in the basketball complex when his teammates were there working out or playing pickup. When the team held offseason meetings, he was not included. And whenever Donovan was asked to update Wilbekin’s situation last summer, the answer was always the same.
He wasn’t a part of the team.
When it came time for the Gators to report for the start of practice in the fall, Wilbekin had abided by the terms set down by his coach and was allowed to take the floor with his team Oct. 11. Wilbekin was relegated exclusively to the scout team, as Donovan maintained the suspension through the first five games of the regular season.
Through it all, Wilbekin just played.
“When you put a challenge in front of him, he can rise to it. That’s his bulldog mentality and something Scottie has always had,” Svend Wilbekin said. “When he settled in his heart that he was going to stay [at UF], he became very tenacious of what they were requiring of him and you could see his love for the program, his teammates and his determination to get back.”
Wilbekin debuted Nov. 25 at Jacksonville and the Gators have lost just one game since. That was when Wilbekin rolled his ankle with three minutes to go at Connecticut. He was in the locker room icing the injury when Shabazz Napier -- the player Wilbekin would have been guarding -- sank a 15-foot jumpshot at the buzzer for a one-point win.
More than two months later, the Gators are now chasing perfection in the SEC, with Wilbekin averaging 14.7 points, 3.4 assists, 40.7 percent from 3-point range and 80 percent from the free-throw line against conference opponents. On the other end, he’s the catalyst of one of the best defenses in the country.
“Obviously he went through a lot, and it was the best thing for him in terms of helping him to grow all the way around,” Donovan said. “I think off the court and on the court there are correlations with how you play. There’s a balance you have to have.”
Wilbekin is highly efficient on offense, spectacular on defense, yet the balance doesn’t stop there.
Watch how animated Wilbekin is during dead balls. Besides being in total control of the team when the action is live, he takes the next step when the clock is stopped by huddling the players, reviewing the situation and individual assignments, and reminding them of the UF mantra to stay in the moment.
“He’s like another coach on the court,” sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “The way he’s in tune with the game just makes you want to play that much harder. He’s a great leader and a great point guard who’s doing stuff he’s done all season, but it’s like people are just now starting to notice.”
Don’t count his father among the latter.
Svend Wilbekin coached Scottie well into their time together at The Rock, the school that sent Scottie to Florida as a 16-year-old freshman who graduated a year early. Svend was a ballhawking defender as a player too, learning the craft by guarding teammate and former UF star Vernon Maxwell during Gainesville Buchholz practices every day. Svend went on to play at Santa Fe Community College, where he still holds the record for steals in a game with 11.
No need to wonder where his son’s tenacity on defense came from.
When Scottie was a sophomore at The Rock, the team’s assistant coaches could not come to practice one day, so Svend turned to his son for help. Svend took the scout team and appointed Scottie as coach of the starting unit.
Scottie took the ensuing scrimmage personally; as opposing point guard and coach.
“He was literally trying to outwit me, changing and disguising defenses to counter whatever I tried to set up,” Svend recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m onto something here.’ He was already calling the offensive sets, but I told him our next game that I wanted him to call the defenses. The team responded so well; they were mentally into it. I mean, he went from zone to man-to-man to traps to halfcourt presses. He was calling and changing it all.”
Now he’s executing whatever Donovan and his assistants put into the game plan, but Wilbekin also has the pulse of his teammates and juice to make a suggestion to the bench.
Rewind to last March in Austin, Texas, where the Gators led Northwestern State by just eight points at halftime in their opening NCAA Tournament game. In the locker room, Donovan blasted guard Mike Rosario for his defense and told him to clean it up. On UF’s first defensive possession of the second half, Rosario missed a box out on the glass and his man instantly tipped in an easy offensive putback.
Rosario was on the bench instantly. And he was still there 16 minutes later, absolutely stewing, even though the Gators led by 24.
Wilbekin went to Donovan.
“Coach are you going to put Mike back in the game?”
Donovan glared ... then put Rosario in the game.
Two nights later, Rosario shredded Minnesota for a UF career-high 25 points to lead the Gators back to the Sweet 16.
Player-coach on the floor. Player-coach on the sidelines, too.
That was the Scottie Wilbekin of last year. A far better version is out there now; an admittedly more mature one with a better understanding of what he values and appreciates in life. And this Wilbekin appears to have saved his best -- both player and person -- for whatever remains in these final weeks of his college career.
“Scottie, the person, never changed,” Svend Wilbekin said. “I just think what he went through last summer gave him more clarity as to the person he wanted to become.”
Scottie, the player, went along for the ride and has taken the Gators with him. By the looks of things, there’s no limit how far they can go.
GATORS HOOP SCOOP
No. 2 Florida vs Auburn
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Where: O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.
Records: Florida 23-2 (12-0); Auburn 12-11 (4-8)
TV: Sun Sports / FSN (w/Dave Baker and Larry Conley)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 108 /XM 199
Game notes: Florida notes; Auburn notes
History: Auburn and Florida meet for the second time this season. The Tigers lead the all-time series 87-74, but the Gators are catching up fast, thanks to a 19-4 mark under Coach Billy Donovan that includes a 68-61 win at Auburn on Jan. 18. In that game, UF got 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting off the bench from Casey Prather, who returned to the lineup after missing two games with bruised bone on his knee.
Pre-game storyline: Florida returns home after sweeping a pair of road games last week at Tennessee and Kentucky. The latter marked just the ninth win by a UF team in Lexington and maybe the biggest road victory for the program since the back-to-back NCAA title teams. The Gators jumped a spot in the polls to No. 2 in the nation -- tying for their program’s highest ranking since the last national championship -- and with a win can maintain a three-game lead on Kentucky in the SEC standings with five games to play.
About the Gators: Backup point guard Kasey Hill pulled a groin muscle in the win at Kentucky and will not play against Auburn. ... They’re the defensive standard in the SEC, topping the league at that end of the floor in scoring (58.0 ppg), field-goal percentage (.395) and fouls committed (16.2 pg). ... UF continues to struggle from the 3-point line. It ranks sixth in shooting percentage from distance (.341), having gone 10 games since hitting at least 10 treys in a game and 12 since making at least 40 percent. ... Sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II (12.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg) would like to atone for his last outing against Auburn, which marked his lone scoreless game of the season. Frazier was a focus of the Tigers defense that day, as they extended on him at the 3-point line and only let him to attempt two shots. Frazier appeared mentally out of the game and the UF coaches saved him the trouble of playing much in the second half. ... Prather (15.7 ppg, 5.3) had a midseason dip in offensive production, thanks to a nagging ankle injury sustained at Mississippi State. Prather played through the discomfort, but failed to hit double-figures in four of six games, only to crank out maybe his finest game of the season in finishing with 24 points on 8-for-9 shooting and four rebounds at Kentucky. ... The shooting struggles for backup forward/center Dorian Finney-Smith continue to mount. Over the last eight games, “Doe-Doe” has made just 20 of his 64 field-goal attempts (31.3 percent) and gone 3-for-28 (10.7 percent) from 3-point range, including 0-for-14 the last five games.
About the Tigers: They started the conference season with six losses, but have gone 4-2 since. ... Auburn gave Florida fits in the first meeting, mainly by hitting its first five 3-point shots to erase a 13-point deficit and keep the game tight deep into the second half before Scottie Wilbekin made a huge breathing-room shot inside the final 90 seconds. ... The Gators figured out how defend Auburn on the 3-point line in the second half of that game, but they’ll need to do a better job of handling the dribble-drive skills of guard Chris Denson (20.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg). He goes almost exclusively to his left and is a spectacular finisher. ... The Tigers aren’t exceptional at many things (good free-throw shooting team at 71.9 percent) and actually are one of the weakest defensive teams in the SEC. That didn’t stop them from holding UF to 68 points and forcing 14 turnovers last time. ... While Denson can really drive it (and is an outstanding finisher for someone of his lithe build), shooting guard KT Harrell (19.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg) scores mostly from the perimeter. Together, that’s 40-plus points from the backcourt.
* 8 - SEC games (out of 12) in which Florida has not allowed the opponent to score 60 points, including six of the last seven.
* 29 - Points by the Gators in the final 11 minutes at Kentucky after scoring at least one point their last 11 possessions.
* 62.4 - Prather’s field-goal percentage for the season, tops in the SEC by nearly seven percentage points. His 8-for-9 show at Rupp Arena converted to 88.9 percent, which was the single-game highest of any league player this season with at least eight field goals.
* 1991 - The last year Florida and Auburn played a home-and-home series. The Gators, led by first-year coach Lon Kruger, swept the Tigers, then guided by Tommy Joe Eagles, by winning 84-82 at home and 87-84 in overtime on the road.
* 1992 - Year of the NCAA Tournament when John Pelphrey, now assistant coach at UF, and Auburn coach Tony Barbee squared off in the East Regional semifinals. Pelphrey scored 18 points and four rebounds for Kentucky, while Barbee had 10 points and six rebounds for Massachusetts. UK won 87-77.
Watch for it: More minutes for freshman center Chris Walker. In three games, he’s combined for just 18 minutes -- only two at Kentucky -- but the 6-10 post player has handled his unique situation admirably and has worked through his mistakes in practice with a good attitude. At some point, the Gators are either going to need him for extended minutes due to foul or they’ll be in position to get him those minutes because of the scoreboard.